When There Is Nothing to Do but Eat

Glenn Cook is an editorial writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and when he gets interested in a subject, that subject goes under the microscope for thorough examination. Recently, Cook got to thinking about the reasons for the childhood obesity epidemic. One of them is the parenting culture we seem to have adopted, which in some respects is as stiff and formal as the court etiquette under Louis XIV. For many kids, it’s all lessons and playdates, with every minute supervised, and with parents serving as chauffeurs. In “The obesity cure: free-range kids,” Cook observes,
There is no more “Little Rascals” neighborhood life, where kids just spontaneously get together and figure out stuff to do outside, in fresh air, burning calories and taking part in activities that don’t involve stuffing their faces. Cook collected experiences from his readers that only confirmed this conclusion.

They wrote about racketing around on bikes, romping with their dogs, exploring woods and fields, swinging on swings, playing pickup games of baseball or tossing a football around. Kids used to roller-skate up and down the block or play tag, or hide-and-seek. The current debate on whether exercise actually leads to fitness may or may not have validity, but one thing is certain: When you’re playing kickball, you’re not eating. Eating was something done in the house, at the table. There was no constant snacking or carrying around bottles of beverages.

I remember being outside constantly, even if only in the family backyard or the neighbor’s backyard. There was plenty to do — holes to dig, chestnuts to pick up and break free from their spiny green shells, rocks to pile up into castles. In the winter, there were snow forts to build and dirty, crusted-over mountains of plowed snow to scale. We stayed out till suppertime, and then went back out again and stayed until dark, and only very reluctantly ascended the apartment stairs to get ready for bed.

And getting to school? We walked. I walked to and from grade school, junior high, and high school. In my entire high school of 1,000 students, there was one (!) boy who had owned a car. On weekends and vacations, I walked all over town — just because there was nothing to do at home.

Now, you can travel the length and breadth of a residential neighborhood without seeing a single human being for miles. It’s like the aftermath of the neutron bomb explosion, the one that only wipes out people and leaves the buildings standing. Parents are terrified by the idea of child abductions and scared witless by media reports, ignoring the fact that most missing children are removed not by strangers but by the non-custodial parents.

Cook notes that no government programs or tax hikes were needed to encourage children to be active in the old days. We just got out there and did it. But he doesn’t abandon the subject there. A parent himself, he noticed that school playgrounds and ball fields are now fenced in and locked up. School districts and municipalities are so scared of being sued, they don’t let kids use playground equipment during off-hours, so all that expensive stuff that cost so many tax dollars is sitting there unused most of the time. Our litigation-happy society is partly responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic.

In Chapter 13 of Overweight: What Kids Say, the “boredom vicious cycle” is one of the many vicious cycles described by Dr. Pretlow, building on information collected from thousands of young people in distress. What they call boredom is actually the result of detachment, a strategy they resort to in order to escape stress, sadness, or the painful reality of problems:
We need to help these kids find other ways of coping with life’s problems, and to tell the difference between the general malaise that comes from being nervous, upset, or “bored,” and genuine hunger. There’s something desperately wrong when a 280-pound 12-year-old writes, “I only eat when I am bored or depressed which is all the time,” and then follows it up with “LOL.” This is no laughing matter.


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